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There is a fundamental relationship between belief propagation and maximum a posteriori decoding. A decoding algorithm, which is called the Maxwell decoder, is introduced and provides a constructive description of this relationship. Both the algorithm itself and the analysis of the new decoder are reminiscent of the Maxwell construction in thermodynamics. This paper investigates in detail the case of transmission over the binary erasure channel, while the extension to general binary memoryless channels is discussed in a companion paper.